Human beings have two contradictory characteristics constantly battling in our brains. The first, and most unusual among animals, is our ability to cooperate to achieve a common goal. Lots of other creatures cooperate, from schools of fish to communities of chimpanzees, but none of them come close to our level of assumed cooperative behavior.
It has been said that our ability, and willingness, to stand in line is one of the most extreme examples of this. Animals simply do not queue up. If salmon seiners were salamanders, they would cork each other constantly. The ability of human beings to work cooperatively across vast interlocking networks has defined human behavior, and transformed the earth.
The second defining human characteristic is arguably more common among our animal cousins. I am referring to the tendency toward tribalism that has been part of our makeup for over 100,000 years, at least since we first formed groups to protect precious shellfish beds located in the southern tip of South Africa.
It was human history’s darkest time, when we were nearly snuffed out by a freezing drought that lasted 70,000 years. The people who survived formed cooperative groups that were for the first time based on a place, namely the oyster beds that fed them. These could be called our first countries, and our first governments. And, perhaps, our first baseball teams, given the likelihood that the original arsenals of defensive weapons were probably made of driftwood.
At any rate, our history as human beings has always been shaped by these two deep and sometimes conflicting characteristics: first our talent for cooperation, and second our desire for our team to win in the end.
Nowhere are these two tendencies better evidenced than at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The North Pacific Council’s standard of science-based management is a model of cooperation among different fishery “baseball teams,” whether defined by gear type, species or region.
It is also a great example of why the management game should be played in person.
The most recent meeting of the NPFMC saw different teams take their turns at bat during then deliberations over things like access to cod quota in Unalaska, what a pelagic trawl is, and whether there should be a snow crab season.
In the end you might say the cod quota teams split a doubleheader when it was decided Unalaska small-boat fishermen will get the first shot at the fish until September, when it will roll over to the Super Sixty fleet.
Bering Sea crab fishermen seemed to have men on base when the Council held out the possibility of openings, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game left them stranded when they decided not to open snow crab, or Bristol Bay red king crab, after all.
And the emerging rivalry between The Pelagic Trawlers and The Bering Sea Crabbers seems destined to become the stuff of legend. The Crabbers scored early with revelations that some “pelagic” trawls spent considerable time in contact with the bottom, including areas where Bristol Bay red king crabs are mating and molting, and the Council will be giving that behavior a closer look.
But The Trawlers have been throwing some heat. They point to the lack of any real data, and the difficulty in getting it, especially video data in the muddy conditions found in the Bristol Bay Red Crab Savings Area. It was also thrown out there that the savings area itself might not even be in the right location anymore, now that everything seems to be moving north as a reaction to warmer conditions.
The changeup pitch is a reminder of the value to the nation and world of the vast Alaskan whitefish fisheries. Finally, the fastball: the science shows that climate change, not trawl bycatch, is the real driver of crab crashes.
This is bound to be a long series, and it will be played live. That has not been true over the past two years.
The COVID pandemic forced the NPFMC to retreat to online meetings. After two years of them one thing is clear: disembodied faces raising cartoon hands to blandly comment on shared documents is no substitute for real human beings jacked up on keg coffee bouncing off each other in the hallway like shared electrons. That’s where the real magic happens.
There is a good reason for City Councils, State Assemblies, and U. S. Houses of Representatives all meet in person. Face to face interaction kicks in the natural human inclination to cooperate with other humans.
As the short history of social media has shown us, online interactions tend to have an opposite,polarizing effect, emphasizing our tendency toward tribalism. Online meetings of the NPFMC were not immune. Grim-faced Councilmembers in different time zones were stacked up on the computer screen like a weird Hollywood Squares grid, listening to disembodied testimonies from far away fishermen. It did not seem to be the picture of productive discourse. On the open sea of the internet boats drift apart.
Traveling to attend a meeting of the NPFMC can be prohibitively expensive. For many the online meetings offered access to the process that had never existed before, and it allowed for participation by stakeholders who otherwise would not be able to participate in real time. For that reason, the Council should continue to offer hybrid participation. But despite the expense and the keg coffee, nothing can, or should, take the place of in-person meetings.
Terry Haines was a commercial fisherman in Kodiak for more than 30 years. He now produces the Alaska Fisheries Report for KMXT and is a member of the Kodiak City Council. He can be reached at email@example.com
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